Sunday, September 03, 2006

Linux represents future of computer systems

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Nathan Alday
August 29, 2006

This past Saturday marks the 15th anniversary of one of the keystones of the modern Internet-the Linux operating system.

Linux creator Linus Torvalds first announced he was working on the operating system as a hobby in the comp.os.minix Usenet group on Aug. 25, 1991. Today, his hobby has grown into the premier operating system for Web-servers-critical to the Internet-and supercomputing clusters like Mississippi State's MAVERICK and EMPIRE computers. According to, the authority on the world's fastest computers, 73 percent of the top 500 supercomputers run on Linux.

Properly speaking, Linux is the kernel of a family of operating system distributions that also utilize the Free Software Foundation's GNU utilities. As a result, modern distributions, or variants with different support teams and different mixes of packaged software, are often known as GNU/Linux.

Linux has had such great success for a variety of reasons: it is similar to the older Unix operating system common in scientific and engineering applications, it has a huge support community, and it is Free Software (capitalization intentional) licensed under the GNU General Public License, or GPL. The last two are related and are the most important.

The GPL is a software license that focuses on ensuring that the software's user has the right to "change and share" the software. Users may run the software in any way they choose, may copy and distribute it as they see fit and may modify the software and distribute it as well, so long as the modified code remains licensed under the GPL. Also, the software's source code-the human readable version of the computer program created by the programmers-must be available along with the binary code that the computer actually runs. Software licensed under the GPL and similar licenses are known as Free Software.

This emphasis on sharing software and allowing anyone to work on it in turn encourages programmers to use, improve and share it. As a result, Linux has quickly evolved from Torvald's personal project to the dominant force in scientific, engineering and Internet computing. As a result, anyone planning a career in or hobby in science, engineering or Web page development should familiarize themselves with Linux. For example, at Mississippi State the SimCenter, which uses computers to solve problems in science and engineering fields, not only uses Linux to run its supercomputers, but also the individual workstations.

Since it's Free Software, Linux can and has been adapted for many applications. In fact, it was originally written only for Intel PCs. Today, many Linux distributions continue to focus on the desktop PC, and it is growing as a desktop operating system.

As a desktop operating system, Linux has many advantages over Windows and Apple. Most Linux distributions are cost free, Linux as a whole has huge community support and Linux is highly customizable. For instance, unlike Windows or Mac OS X, Linux provides different graphical interfaces so that a Linux computer may look and feel like Windows or OS X for people experienced with those operating systems, or it may look completely different. The Linux and GNU philosophy maximizes a user's freedom and choices. In short, Linux can potentially do anything.

Personally, I use Ubuntu, a popular Linux distribution, on my Dell laptop, my desktop and the Macintosh G3 in my office-Linux will run on anything. Ubuntu comes with Sun's OpenOffice, which allows me to read and write Microsoft Office documents, slideshows and spreadsheets.

Also, its point and click software manager allows me to easily download and upgrade programs such as Wine, which runs Windows programs under Linux, and XMMS and its plugins, which can play almost any type of audio media. As a bonus, there is almost no chance of my computers catching a virus. Nor will my computers ever be shutdown against my will and my data locked up inside, something Windows users now face if the Windows Genuine Advantage service mistakes their copy for a pirated version. Remember, the GPL guarantees the user's right to run the software.

Given these advantages, Linux can't help but become more and more common. As a result, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with Linux. Fortunately, this is easy and, unlike Windows or Macintosh, free.

The simplest way to learn about Linux is to download a copy of Ubuntu from and burn it to a CD. Then you can run Ubuntu from the CD simply by rebooting the computer with the CD in its drive. No installation is necessary. This will not affect whatever operating system that is already installed. Then simply click on "System/Help" and follow from there. If you cannot download an Ubuntu CD, email me at, and I will send you one.

While learning how to navigate using the graphical desktop is important and a good first step to learning Linux, it is a good idea to learn how to use the Linux command line, also called the terminal. While the various flavors of Linux often differ in specifics, they share a common interface in the command line. The basic commands work for all distributions. Also, Mac OS X has a similar command line. For anyone going into a scientific, engineering or computing field, this is necessary, as the Linux command line is not only a powerful tool but unavoidable.

Only 15 years old, Linux is already the leading operating system in more technical fields such as computational engineering. As more user-friendly versions like Ubuntu appear, Linux will become commonplace on desktop and laptop computers. So download Ubuntu, and give it a shot.

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